D&D: An introduction to the famous table top game.

For this post I’ve asked my friend Bill Notnel to interview me, thanks for coming in Bill.

No problem Dave, ready?

Let’s do it.

Dungeons & Dragons…

If you have never heard of it before, it’s a table top fantasy game.  Actually Bill, it’s the table-top fantasy game, played mostly by those who would call themselves ‘nerds’.  If you have heard of it, you might picture this as your average player:

Courtesy of orgtheory.wordpress.com

I wouldn’t say you are ‘wrong’ so much as uninformed for taking this view; let’s fix that.  By the end of this post, you should know what D&D is, if it could be your thing, and hopefully how cool it can really be.  I have asked my friend Bill Notnel, to interview me today.

So what is D&D?

Dungeons and Dragons is a game that started in the basement of a man named Gary Gygax (sweet name), who wanted to give his friends an adventure to play through.  The tale goes that Gary had his friends explore a vast network of dungeons underneath a castle, fighting monsters and finding treasure.  While the origin is far more complex, it conveys the spirit of the game: a way to let you play pretend with friends.

That’s really all it is: so little, and yet so much.  It’s a game of imagination where you play and explore worlds as vast as planes of existence or as confined as village, playing as a character that can be a noble Elf Lord with a long and detailed lineage, or an Orc thief with no memory of where she’s from.  While the game is designed principally for a world of medieval fantasy, borrowing from and building off a host of authors over the last century; a skilled DM can make the game suit their needs as they require.

What’s a DM?

Excellent question, dear reader!  A Dungeon Master (DM) or Game Master (GM) is the person responsible for the world the other players play in.  Let me back up.  To play D&D you need a group of 4-6 people (3-8 is possible but not advised.)  One person, usually the best storyteller or most versed in D&D mechanics, is the dungeon master; everyone else is a Player. Each player has a character who acts as an avatar in the world the DM creates. So, players play Player Characters (PCs) in the world created by the DM, optionally populated with Non-Player Characters (NPCs).

So what do you do?

Broadly speaking, whatever you want.  Typically the DM has planned at minimum a quest, some sort of task, to present the party (characters played by the other players) with.  Quests can be anything from delivering a letter, to killing a beast, to solving a mystery or crime, to rescuing a princess.  If the task is very large, then the DM will usually break it up into smaller quests or milestones, with the overarching storyline being called a campaign.

But wait, you said whatever I want, can I ignore the quests?

Well, yeah, you can hang out at the local inn and get drunk, you can walk around town, you can sleep all day for all I care.  Remember that the DM does have a general plan in mind, so at least give them a heads up if you plan on doing something else.  Messing with the DM’s plan is allowed, but by no means wise, since they are essentially God; a fickle DM might have you trip and break your neck if you make them invent whole new towns and areas on the spot.

You also can’t technically do whatever you want; but you can try to do whatever you want.  Success is not guaranteed.

Can you elaborate?

Of course.  D&D has, over decades of refinement, developed a fairly rich set of rules to give structure to your play.  In simplest terms, you tell the DM what you want your character to do, and the DM asks you to roll a d20 to determine your success.  Your character’s abilities and skills are factored into the roll.

Hold up, d20?

Right, in D&D and dice enthusiast parlance, ‘dX‘ is the short form of ‘a die with X sides’. Also NdX is the short form of ‘N dice with X sides’.  In Monopoly, Craps, and Yahtzee, d6 dice are used (2d6, 2d6, and 6d6 respectively).  For most can-I-do-this? rolls, you use a d20, or icosahedral die:

Must be a planet of giants
A green d10 and red d20 (not the typical scale)

Fine, back to determining success?

Ok, so let’s say you are playing a strong, brutish dwarf. You want to break down a door.  The DM will ask you to roll a strength check. This means you roll a d20, and add the number to whatever your character’s strength is (let’s say it’s 9).  Breaking down a wooden door requires a total of 16 or higher, meaning you have to roll a 7 or higher.  Rolling 7-20 will result in success, or 80% of the time that door will fall.

But what if you aren’t strong? If your character is more of a lover than a fighter, and has a strength of 3, then they’d have to roll 13 or higher, resulting in a 40% chance of success.  This is where the rules keep you from doing whatever you want, but not from trying.

It also keeps any one person from being perfect at everything, which makes playing balanced; if you can remember games of shoot ’em up as kids where you argued about whether you ‘shot’ someone and they had to play dead, you can see the value of having rules to settle it.

Alright, you mentioned strength, what other traits are enumerated?

Promise not to freak out?

Uh, sure yeah.

Strength, Constitution, Dexterity, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma are your basic stats.  Then there’s defense: Armor Class, Fortitude, Reflex, and Will; which are derived from your character (Str & Con determine Fort, Dex & Int determine Ref, Wis & Cha determine Will).  Then you have your skills:  Acrobatics, Arcana (magic), Athletics, Bluff, Diplomacy, Dungeoneering, Endurance, Heal, History, Insight, IntimidateNature, Perception, Religion, Stealth, Streetwise, and Thievery.

Point is almost anything you want to do falls into a category, and building a character requires assigning points to the… you know what?  Suffice to say it can get complicated, there are tools to expedite this process, and that’s not what I want to talk about.

Fine, so is it just dwarves and elves and orcs?

Like I said, the DM builds the world. I’ve heard of sci-fi, cyber/steampunk, 50s style, and even ancient roman worlds.  The sky is the limit, and the DM has the power to pick the colour.  Any rule that restricts too much can be ignored or enforced at their discretion; though typically it’s considered sporting to state this in advance.

D&D is designed with fantasy in mind, so the races and worlds they offer pre-built will be presented as such, but a few creative twists can turn a griffon into a steam-powered automaton, a katana into a lightsaber, or a shield into …a shield.


Shut up, next question.

So who plays D&D?

More people than you might think.  Though typically avoided for its label as ‘uncool’ or for ‘nerds’ (I too used to picture that guy at the beginning and cringe at the idea of falling to the terrible level of the D&D player), it’s actually played by a lot of really cool folks.  Here are some famous folks who’ve been known to play:

Actors: Mike Myers, Wil Wheaton, Matt Damon, Dame Judy Dench, Jenny McCarthy, Jon Favreau, Ben Affleck, Jack Black, David Boreanaz 

Tough Guys: Vin Diesel (huge fan), Dwayne Johnson,  Hulk Hogan

Comedians: Robin Williams, Billy Crystal, Eddie Izzard, Patton Oswalt, Brian Posehn, David Cross (who’s hinted at playing with other comedians)

TV Show Hosts: Conan O’Brien, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert

Bands & Artists: Metallica, Andrew W.K., Thrice, My Chemical Romance, Alice Cooper

I Could Go On: Joss Whedon, Stephen King, David X. Cohen, Seth Green, Matt Groenig, Matt Stone, Trey Parker, Kevin Smith.

Historically it’s a closet hobby, something you don’t brag about but share with someone you trust to avoid ridicule.  I have no doubt that some these guys and gals introduced each other to it and play together (which is just an awesome thought.)

So what is D&D to you?

To me D&D is an opportunity to build worlds and stories that you can tell with friends; to play a game that relies on imagination and cooperation to be fully realized.  To you it might be a way to kick-ass, or just escape life and daydream for a while.

I want to play, how do I get started?

Well, there’s an easy way and a hard way.  The easy way is you know someone who wants to be a DM and who has the expertise to do it.  The hard way is you don’t.  D&D is owned by Wizards of the Coast, and has a lot of support material. They can sell you miniatures (custom figurines to move around the board), rule books, guides, and stories to play.  Poor people like me use coins, chapsticks, or other small items.

Look at his pointy little ears!
A male elf ranger mini

If you can’t find a copy online, you’ll want the Dungeon Master’s Guide (DMG), Player’s Handbook (PHB), and either the Monster Manual (MM) or Monster Vault (MV, and my preference).  You’ll also need dice, or a dice rolling app (there are tons).  Rolling real dice is more satisfying, but I’m a writer not a cop, do what you want.

I should mention somewhere that there is a starter kit you can buy for around $25. I have not used it, but I hear it’s grand:

Cool cool, coolcoolcool.
So cool….

You’ll also want pen and paper to write down notes and keep track of things. Your character’s information is written on a character sheet; and your DM will walk you through how it works.

Unless you have a super-powered imagination, I find a map to place your minis, NPCs, and monsters on easier to work with. How elaborate you want to be is up to you. I go cheap and draw maps on paper, like so:

Typical D&D set up: character sheets, dice, minis, and a map (not mine).

If you buy campaigns from Wizards of the Coast, they’ll often come with maps:

A typical D&D map (this is from the Cathedral of Chaos)

And if you have a flare for crafts, and are meticulous, you can try to be as cool as Penny Arcade’s co-founder and illustrator, Mike Krahulik:

Seriously, this is mind blowing.
Rotating spheres of ice and lava in the elemental chaos? Sign me up.

If you want to see some excellent playing of the game, Penny Arcade Expo actually has an ongoing campaign that they’ve put on YouTube, featuring D&D’s senior designer Chris Perkins as the DM, Wil Wheaton, and three of the PA staff.  It’s hilarious to watch, and hard to duplicate (in terms of both talent and money), but it’s also inspiring.

Fair warning, there is adult language.

Alright, I’m going the ‘hard way’, any advice on finding friends?

Well, first you’ll need friends, which is beyond the scope of this post.  Assuming you have friends though, I’d talk about role playing games in general, ask them questions like, “if you were any character from Harry Potter/Lord of the Rings/…/A Song of Ice and Fire which would you be and why?”  See if they have fantasies of their own, or if the idea of playing a game like D&D would appeal to them.  Remember that the game has a stigma, so try not to emphasize it, use cool examples like NBC’s Community:

Also shows the different kinds of characters players will play.
Abed is a great DM, and this episode is a great litmus test.

If you’re going to be the DM, you’ll want to see if you can get a mix of player preferences.  A diverse group will survive better, but will also be harder to please.  For instance, cloak and dagger political coups will entertain different people than battling wizards, or fighting goblins, or picking pockets.  A little bit of each is best, so they can each specialize and cover each other’s weaknesses.

You also want to think about the story you want to tell.  If you want to tell a cloak and dagger tale, avoid picking the shoot-first-questions-second people; or wait to tell that story some other time.  The first time I played I was a striker because hitting things requires little thought, it allowed me to get used to things; but by the end I realized I enjoyed narrative more than combat.  So the second time round I played a bard named Atalanta, who was much better at talking than hitting.  My third time was as the DM, and I recruited the party myself, if you have more questions in that regard, let me know.

I think we’re almost out of time Dave, is there anything else we should know?

Hmm, well there’s tons of advice I could dump on you but I’ll share what tied me in at first:

  1. Who you play with affects the entire game.  If you’re laid back, avoid legalistic players or you’ll have a bad time.  The more you think alike, the easier the collaborative imagination will be.
  2. Unlike most video games or all board games, your characters persist between sessions. So if you die in the game, it’s permanent, there is no reset; this adds an element of fear, and makes you a lot less reckless.
  3. A session typically takes a whole afternoon or evening (2-4 hours). You will get faster as you learn how to play, just like any game.
  4. I highly recommend limiting the level of complexity if it’s your first time. Leave out yuan-ti and psions, stick to dwarves and rangers (at least keep it to Player Handbook 1.)
  5. Do your homework, nothing shatters the illusion like stopping to look something up.
  6. Players: the DM is always right, they command the utmost respect.
  7. DM: You are there for the players, try to be nice.
  8. Remember to have fun. If you aren’t having fun, you are probably doing it wrong.

In closing, I’ve had great experiences with D&D. If you have any questions feel free to leave a comment, and if you have big questions maybe I’ll write another post on this.